Not many screenwriters can lay claim to having penned films whose box office totals exceed 2 billion dollars. Making this feat more impressive, not many screenwriters also ascended to the heights of of being Hollywood’s top paid writer, when English was not their first language. But such is the case with notorious rabble-rouser Joe Eszterhas, or Eszterhas József, as he was his given name when born in the small Hungarian village of Csákánydoroszló, back in the harrowing, war-torn year of 1944.
Emigrating with his family as refugees to American and eventually growing up in a poor Hungarian enclave in Ohio, Eszterhas endured prejudice against immigrants, to find work as a journalist with Cleveland’s newspaper the Plain Dealer. From there he moved west to Rolling Stone magazine, and earned a National Book Award nomination for his non-fiction title Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse. He broke into entertainment with his union-themed film-script for F.I.S.T, which took a critical drubbing, but didn’t prevent the scribe from following up with the sensational 80’s juggernaut Flashdance and of course the neo-noir icon Basic Instinct. It was the wild success of Basic Instinct that solidified his career and earned him the reputation as Hollywood’s highest paid writer, with his multi-million dollar deals making as much news as his skirmishes with Hollywood’s powerbrokers like Michael Ovitz.
But Eszterhas never forgot his Hungarian roots, and was involved with many projects that either featured Hungarians or took place in Hungary, most recently the extremely well received Hungarian-language film Children of Glory, based on Eszterhas’s script, which details the heroics of the 1956 Hungarian Olympic water polo team that faced off against the Russians during the 1956 Revolution. Earlier, he wrote American Rhapsody, which follows an American teenager discovering her Hungarian heritage in Budapest, and Music Box, about a Hungarian immigrant to America who is accused of being a war criminal.
A few interesting facts about Joe Eszterhas:
He reportedly wrote Basic Instinct in 13 days, and later sold it at auction for 3 million dollars.
He famously had an affair with Basic Instinct star Sharon Stone.
Huge success also came with huge disappointments. His mocked big budget Showgirls and his indie-minded An Alan Smithee Film both won in the Worst Screenplay category of the Razzies.
Music Box’s plot closely resembled life when Eszterhas’ own father was accused of being a Nazi collaborator.
The writer eventually moved from Hollywood back to Ohio, to live quietly with his family, and write books and screenplays.
Eszterhas publicly called out many a star, like Edward Norton, Michael Douglas, and Val Kilmer for overstepping their roles. He even wrote a book on his difficult experiences with Mel Gibson during their ill-fated project on Judah and The Maccabees.
Though Showgirls was considered one of Hollywood’s all-time great critical flops, it continues to gain a cult following and not only turned a profit on video but remains one of MGM’s top twenty sellers on that format.
Joe Eszterhas participated in the Memory Project: the Hungarian American Visual History Project. His episode can be seen below.
Hats off to Joe Eszterhas, a Hungarian in Hollywood, who has left an indelible mark on film.
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